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Gathering89ik,The Ghent Altarpiece: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (interior view), painted 1432 by van Eyck
"They're well worth the occasional, exceptional, judicious risk …"

I reflected as we drove the narrow twisty road down into Boulder that I had not attended a Gathering of any sort in five full months. Focused upon sheltering in place, justifying going anyplace had become a negotiation, with just staying home usually winning the debate. Out, we became Covid invisible, proximity monitors on full alert, averted gazes taking the place of all human contact contact. We could move through as much of a crowd as an entry-controlled grocery store could offer without making a ripple, hardly noticing our own presence there before heading back to our altogether too familiar car which would as equally invisibly carry us back home and into isolation. But The Muse's first cousin's daughter Grace was holding a graduation recital up at their Boulder place, strict masking in place and to be held outdoors. The Muse's aunt would be there and the promise of a little family time drew us. I did not feel nearly as concerned as I expected to feel.

This was a genuine shindig attracting a crowd of perhaps sixty seated in lawn chairs across the broad front yard.
The grand piano had been pulled out onto the sturdy covered front porch, and people weren't touching too much, each masked and bumping elbows. Conversations muffled through layers of fabric, people gabbled as they do, or as they once did when Gathering. Chuck met us at the front gate. Aileen warmly ushered us up onto the porch to sit with her folks, brother, and The Muse's Aunt, who never seems to age. Grace, a gangly young woman now headed to Dartmouth this Fall, greeted us warmly and some family chatter commenced, some status sprinkled with remembrance. When family gathers, generations long gone assemble, too, speaking through admittedly fondly faulty memory to also however briefly inhabit the space with us.

My face mask quickly produced a humid little habitat over my nose, warm and strangely comforting. Some people's masks were slipping, not always immediately noticed. The kids seemed to struggle most with this, forgetting the covering dangling beneath their chins through the exuberance a Gathering brings. A quiet nod might briefly break the trance and faces would quickly get covered again, and then again, for those masks didn't seem to want to stay in place. A few elicit hugs exchanged. I need not explain why some gave each other brief buys to actually touch. It had been so long and the violation didn't seem like much of a crime, if, indeed, a crime at all.

Grace took charge of her performance space. She introduced herself, a seemingly remarkable act for someone I mostly remember as being so damned young, toddler and adolescent more than confident presence. Yet here she was in mid matriculation heading for an Ivy League education, owning her own situation. She performed with Grace, by which I mean to say she didn't seem to become anyone else when playing. Her technique displayed her familiar presence without pretense, almost confident, and true. So many Gatherings seem drenched in posings, people presenting who they wish to be seen as being rather than their authentic selves, but Grace stood, said her piece, sat, and delivered, modeling that we were all just folks, friends, and family Gathering there.

A rainbow appeared during the intermission, just after the ice cream truck, hired for the occasion, had parked out front. The evening by then, seasoned with just the lightest possible sprinkle of rain, had turned into the most magical possible occasion. Conversation continued, dredging up news and even more memories, proximity overtaking us all. A sigh passed through the crowd after the long standing ovation washed up and over the porch. Grace retreated briefly before heading for seconds at the ice cream truck and everyone started leaving feeling enormously fortunate to have attended, not by any means the least of them, us. We lingered longer than the evening might have insisted, gabbling our way toward the front gate and inserting numerous subordinate clauses at the end of this refreshing paragraph. We had been too long separated and too briefly reconnected. We left wanting more.

I drove back up that twisty road from Boulder in deepening darkness, knowing our destination too well. Traffic for once didn't seem to be trying to kill me, and we sort of sauntered back up into the foothills and home. How refreshed we felt, how connected, how very fortunate. I drove into the garage in a daze, not knowing how many interminable days or months or weeks before we might reasonably reconnect again with family, friends, or anybody beyond The Villa's narrow borders. Back to utter invisibility again. We might have committed the mortal sin of Gathering. We all took what seemed like adequate precautions and I slathered my hands in sanitizer when we reentered the car. I sat what seemed like far enough back from the sometimes unmasked yakking to hopefully prevent transmission, but what do I know? What could I possibly know reaching out from a defensive crouch?

My monitor never sleeps now. My judge remains ever watchful. I read of casual contact super spreading and I catch myself dreading connection. I almost fear that I might have had nothing to dread, having been re-bred now for ever-watchfulness. I could have easily begged off the invitation and remained in humble isolation, unseen and seeing no-one in return. We must never unlearn Gathering, though, however careful we must also become, for these connections reanimate the past, ennoble the present, and renew our future. They provide Grace. They're well worth the occasional, exceptional, judicious risk, even when we're still in the thick of this damned pandemic space.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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